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Tabor and Golgotha: When the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling

February 15, 2008
The awesome story of the Transfiguration of the Lord is the Gospel text for the second Sunday of Lent. We can only speculate on what lies behind this story – one of the Gospel’s most mysterious and awesome visions (Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36). Peter, James and John had an overwhelming experience with the Lord on Mount Tabor. Following the night of temptation and preceding the blackness of Golgotha, the glorious rays of the transfiguration burst forth. Before their eyes, the Jesus they had known and with whom they walked became transfigured. His countenance was radiant; his garments streaming with white light. At his side, enveloped in glory stood Moses, the mighty liberator, who had led Israel out of slavery, and Elijah, the greatest of Israel’s prophets.
On the holy mountain, Peter, James and John were conversing with Jesus about his death and resurrection that would take place in Jerusalem. The three disciples were totally confused and awestruck. Peter fumbled for the right words. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents, one for you, one for Elijah and one for Moses.” But suddenly out of a translucent cloud came a voice like thunder, the voice of God: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
The experience of Jesus’ transfiguration gives us an opportunity to look at some of our own mountain top experiences. How have such experiences shed light on the shadows and darkness of life? What would our lives be without some of these peak experiences? How often do we turn to those few but significant experiences for strength, courage and perspective? When we're down in the valley we often can’t see Christ’s glory.
When Jesus’ “exodus” got underway and his apostles and disciples saw what it meant for him- when they saw that shining face bloodied and spat upon, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags- they had to rethink what that glory was all about. His face did not shine radiantly on the cross. No chariot of fire swooped down to spirit him away. No glorious musical strains of victory sounded on Golgotha. And we might very well ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Mount Tabor, where no one could see? Why didn’t God save it for the cross?
transfiguration1.jpgJesus died very much like those who died on either side of him, one of them begging to be saved from what was coming, the other asking to be remembered when Jesus got to paradise. Jesus could not do anything for the one who wanted to be spared, but he did a real favor for the one whom tradition has called "Dismas," meaning the dying one. He told him that darkness was a dazzling one, with paradise in it for both of them. This he learned on Mount Tabor, when light burst through all the seams and showed him what he was made of.
Mount Tabor is an open window on our future. The profound meaning of the Transfiguration assures us that the opacity of our body will one day be transformed into light. But Tabor also tells us something about the present. It highlights what our body already is, beneath its often miserable and broken appearance: the temple of the Holy Spirit. Christianity preaches the salvation of the body, not salvation from the body.
The most consoling message of the Transfiguration is perhaps for those who suffer, and those who witness the deformation of their own bodies and the bodies of their loved ones. "He will transfigure our miserable body, conforming it to his glorious body." Bodies humiliated by sickness and death will be ransomed. Even Jesus will be disfigured in the passion, but will rise with a glorious body with which he will live for eternity and, faith tells us, with which he will meet us after death.
Before light envelops us, we need to go through darkness. Before the heavens open up, we need to go through the mud and dirt. We must experience both mountains – Tabor and Golgotha – in order to see the glory of God. The Transfiguration teaches us that God’s brilliant life included death, and there is no way around it– only through it. It also reminds us that the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling. During moments of transfiguration, God penetrates the hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do, and he leaves upon them the imprint of his own face, in all its radiant and dazzling glory and beauty.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation